Before, during and after my first ever (unsupported) ultra cycling race, BikingMan Oman, 1000km with 7,200m elevation meters, I said it countless times; selling it to myself and also attempting to convince others (who just looked at me and laughed… “yeah yeah… you have no idea, just wait and see”), I WILL NEVER DO IT AGAIN!
Ultra cycling is one the most ridiculous thing I have ever done in my life.
I’ll tell you why:
It’s long, it’s stupid long, there is just no need to cycle that long, what for?
It’s lonely. Yes, the actual event is lonely, from start line to finish line, but that I don’t mind that so much, because something happens when the gun goes off and I know I have to deal with myself and my mission, totally alone. This is actually a unique opportunity to learn about one self. In my opinion, it is more so the demands of the training which is the harder part. Because how can you possibly ask someone or anyone not into ultra “hey, you fancy going on a 8hr slow ride?” Hell no they don’t! Training is ultimately long and lonely. And this is even coming from someone who is very comfortable in her own company and even so often prefer yet. Yet, I still think it is lonely at another level. Do I enjoy the long and lonely training – and the long and lonely drives to training? Not that much.
It’s painful. Yes, it’s going to be painful. It will probably happen to most riders. We just deal with it. And then we heal. But during the times of dealing with the pain and no way to escape it, again I swear to myself; I will never do it again!
Wet, cold, tired, even freezing. How about dealing with bad weather? There’s no escape. Fun? No!
Mechanical issues. Well well, if you are not a bike mechanic, or like myself, don’t have any interest in repairing bikes, well then you might be screwed.
Organizational stress. Organizing a million small things; some mandatory, some personally selected, some I don’t have a clue if I will need or not. To carry it, or not to carry it? What if? This might be useful, but what if I’m not going to need it? Borrowing from other riders. Asking for help. Getting help. Argh… It’s stressful. Stressful organizing. Stressful packing. I have said twice now (as I head off to my 2nd Ultra Race); I will not do it again!
So this is the reason why I am going back. I can’t stop where I started. I am not satisfied. I need to know for myself if I can do better. If you remember from Oman, I rocked up with ‘all the gear and no idea’. I jumped on the bike and started pedaling into the unknown. I had ups and downs, I has mechanical issues and I had pain. I was on a mission to learn about myself, and I dealt with every situation as it appeared. In the latter part of the course (final 300km), I hit race mode, flicked my psycho switch and will-powered (because there was zero physical power left) through the ridiculous Omani hills, crossing the finish line Top 10 overall and 2nd Woman (53 mins after female winner Jasmijn Muller). I was overwhelmed and surprised, but admittedly pretty chuffed with that result for my first ever ultra. I remember my exact feeling at the finish; Good I did so well, I have now proved to myself that I can do ultra cycling well and there is no need to do it again!
Was I physically strong in Oman? I am not sure. Was I mentally strong? Yes. Was in control of myself and my situation? Absolutely yes. Was it beginners luck? No, I had plenty of problems along the way. Was I efficient? No (not enough). Did I waste more than 53 mins? I would say yes. Do I know where I wasted time? Absolutely yes = unfinished business.
I have to know.
I went to Oman as a beginner. I will now go to Corsica with experience. I am by no means an expert, it takes years and many races to build solid experience. But I have one ultra race under my belt and I know where I should be able to save time (as long as it is within my control). I want to know how I do with my time saving strategies, if I will be able to cover the entire course faster, if I can handle it mentally and physically (there is also risk of breaking down) and if I can be efficient, when there is also the option to take it easy.
BikingMan Corsica – 700km w/ 13,000m elevation.
This is not Oman. This is Corsica. It’s way more hilly, it’s colder, it’s wetter. There may even be encounters with angry stray dogs. I have never been to Corsica, but it also looks absolutely stunning, I hope I will be able to take in the breathtaking views and not miss too many beautiful places while I pass during night time. Once again I will be heading into unknown territory, geographically. But this time, I believe I know what to expect, from myself. I believe I know my ultra cycling strengths and weaknesses, to a certain extend. I have mentally prepared myself for above mentioned reasons for not doing it; loneliness, potential bad weather and PAIN.
I aim to go all in. Push myself harder than Oman. Enjoy the dot watching.
I have said it before and I will say it again; I have possibly learned more about myself in the last 2 ¾ years since taking up the sport of cycling, than in the rest of my 37 years. Crazy, right?
I bought my first road bike October 2013, not even knowing if I would enjoy road cycling (I literally just took a chance on it); I had no idea what was lying ahead of me! A rollercoaster inclusive of sweat, blood, tears, highs, lows, victories, accidents, doubts, loneliness, travel, frustrations, connecting with people across the world, the suffering… in fact, the list goes on.
Just to make it clear, the lessons have not been learnt from riding leisurely from A to B, from the weekly cookie ride or from doing any pedalling within my comfort zone! In fact, everything I have learnt, the self-discoveries, the mental and physical growth has happened OUTSIDE MY COMFORT ZONE.
It all happened quite quickly. My first ever ride happened to be the 65K Spinneys92 Build-Up ride (seeding for UAE’s largest cycling challenge); I placed 10th (of ca. 60 women). After one month, I took part in the 98K final Build-Up ride (which felt like the longest ride ever); and crossed the line as the first woman. After two months, I took to the start line with the UAE based elite women at the 2013 Spinneys92 Cycling Challenge; and placed 9th.
My head was spinning. My body urging for more. My inner workout warrior curious.
I wondered… If I can achieve this with almost no training and zero experience, then how far might I be able to go if throw my all into it? Would I have what it takes to be an athlete?
There, at 35 years old, I made a conscious decision to make cycling ‘a competitive sport’.
My first goal, get on a podium!
And that’s where the journey really began….
I consciously chose my cycling journey to be built on self-discipline, focus, structure, planning, dedication and pain; withdrawal from the social cycling community for most of the time; and traveling to learn, explore and push boundaries. I consciously decided to give it my best shot. I knew it was going to be hard. But I never knew how hard, how many times I was going to fall hard (literally speaking) nor the valuable life lessons I was about to learn. Amongst the many things I have learnt, many of them obvious, I will share with you some of the most important lessons transferable to other aspects of life:
#1 Managing Expectations
I used to set my expectations in line with my efforts and the work that had gone into my training. As many of you know, the conditions of a cycle race can change in a flash; one small mistake, by oneself, another rider or an external factor, and everything can be lost or won. Setting expectations led to many disappointments.
I have now learned to practise ‘belief’ rather than ‘setting expectations’. On the basis of knowing I have done my very best to prepare for my challenges, I have to ‘believe in myself’; believe what I am doing is of my best ability. What happens, happens. Sometimes things work out – and sometimes they don’t. ‘Believing’ leads to a sense of calm, control and confidence. ‘Expecting’ often leads to disappointments.
#2 The Art of Letting Go
I used to quietly cry all day and all night when I had worked hard and it didn’t go my way, particularly when caused by external factors. It’s not worth it. Let it go! External factors are often unforeseen and sometimes they have a direct cause and effect on one’s personal situation. It cannot be controlled and it cannot be changed. It is what it is. The only thing that can be controlled is how I choose to handle it, from within. Emotions are allowed, in fact emotions are important. Feeling them. Acknowledging them. Then dealing with them. Hanging on to them may result in anger, blaming, accusation, jealousy and disappointment. It’s not healthy. It doesn’t lead to anything positive. The sooner I can let go, the sooner I will feel ‘free’. Free to quickly move away and move on. Focus on my own journey and my next challenge.
#3 Rising After Falling
Physically and mentally. Oh boy, I have stopped counting the amount of times I have hit the tarmac; hard, very hard. One phase of ‘rising after falling’ from a bike is physical and immediate. Right there and then. On the ground. The body is in a state of shock. Breathe! One moment. Breathe! Don’t touch me. Breathe! Now check arms and legs can move. Now check I can rise. Now get back on the bike! In race situations, things might happen with a sense of urgency. Get back as quick as possible and reap the benefits of feeling ‘numb’ from the shock. Open wounds, blood pouring and bruising. No problem. Rise and ride. Get on with the race. There may still be a chance of success. I won’t know unless I try.
Another phase I am relating to is perhaps more metaphorical; or at least psychological. I have had a habit of using ‘competitive cycling’ as a mean of ‘jumping into the deep end’. Taking on challenges beyond my capabilities. Taking opportunities that scared me. Taking chances where the success to failure ratio equalled 1:100; but where at the time I thought to myself ‘but if there is a chance, I will not miss this opportunity’. For example:
• 9 month into my cycling journey, I took off alone to the Amateur World Championships in Slovenia. Everything went wrong. I came last. Like very last. I had almost no experience. I had no luggage. I had no support in any way.
• In 2015 I competed in the Elite Danish National Championships. I got disqualified in the individual time trial; I hadn’t prepared. And I didn’t finish the road race; I had run myself to the ground.
• Only 3 months ago, spring 2016, I had a shot at American Pro cycling. I wasn’t good enough to even complete the races within the time limit.
That’s falling hard, psychologically. Very hard. The pain of failure goes deep.
So why do I keep doing it?
Because I freaking learn so much about myself! Because it’s right there when times get tough and pain goes deep, that personal growth happens. I have discovered that the falling and the failures of cycling have helped me understand myself better. All those uncomfortable situations have helped me to stop, reflect and negotiate with myself:
• How would I like to feel about this situation?
• How do I choose to handle this situation to ensure a positive outcome?
• How can this be turned into a strength?
• What can I do right now to rise with honesty, acceptance and respect, to myself at least?
• How can this situation build foundations of knowledge and experience, for my cycling journey going forward, but also for treating and overcoming obstacles in other aspects of life?
I have learned to rise after falling. In many ways.
The more I fall, the more I practise ways of rising after falling; and ultimately the more resilience I build. Resilience in the sport of cycling. But also resilience to help me cope with life’s headwinds. Life is a roller coaster. It is not possible to protect oneself from the smaller or the bigger storms of life. Health issues, injures, tragedies, redundancies, change and so forth; some situations are totally out of our control. And the only thing we can control is how we deal with these situations; how we come out of these situations healthily, our ability to cope and move on. I whole heartedly believe that the experiences and challenges I have had through my journey of competitive cycling has helped me build resilience. Resilience that will help me cope better with life going forward.
#5 The Importance of Support
It’s no secret I have spent a lot of time on my own through my life. Twice I have relocated to a new country or continent on my own, completely of own choice. No doubt it has made me strong. Very strong. I have had to be strong. I have also ventured out solo on travels countless of times. Moved countries, backpacked and gone off on personal challenges, with no close support. I fully believe in the benefits of going solo. Owning decisions. Choosing one’s own path. Learning to become self-sufficient. However, from this I have also learned that without support, it is hard to hit one’s full potential. Without support, it may take longer to rise after falling. I come from the most supporting family I could ever wish for, but they live in a different continent. I have had longer term relationships, love was plentiful, but I am now on my own.
How did I suddenly learn this through my cycling journey?
Because this roller coaster has had some steep curves and loops. There have been many ups and many downs; many personal failures, but also many personal successes along the way. I guess I never before really took the same risks as I do now. And I guess with taking risks, you can fall deeper and equally you can rise higher. At times of doubt, support can make the world of a difference. And what is success worth if you have no one to share it with?
What I have learned is that it doesn’t matter who it is and from where they come. As an expat, it may not always be the immediate family or the old friends who knows you inside out, who will be the obvious support. Building a support network with people of similar mind set and lifestyle, with people who genuinely celebrate your successes and offer tools and support to lift you even higher and with people who understands the pathway you are taking and who offers to stand by your side when you fall, is one of the essential elements to enjoying the journey of highs and lows. But also significantly important; fun happens around other people. Smiles, laughter and silliness is created between people. The building of my support network continues.
It is not necessarily ‘cycling’ that has taught me these valuable life lessons. It is the fact that I have chosen to immerse myself fully into the cycling, push physical limits, set goals, take risks, travel, always believing I can do more, do better…. And staying on the path no matter which obstacle brings me down… Always rise again… And always continue the fighting.
No matter who you are, no matter where you are in your life, no matter how big or how small your challenge is, no matter where you set your goals – doing something that scares you, of your own choice – is your opportunity to learn, to grow and to become better at handling LIFE!
Learn how to deal with uncomfortable situations by choice, rather than waiting to be taken by surprise.
I am ready for the next challenge. I am ready to write the next chapter of my LIFE story!